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About this book

This introduction to the performance potential of one of Shakespeare's most theatrically exciting plays provides extensive commentary that explores the challenges faced by actors and directors and encourages readers to engage imaginatively with Shakespeare's words. Chapters on stage, film and critical history combine to form a comprehensive study.

Table of Contents

1. The Texts and Early Performances

Abstract
In the early 1590s a theatrical legend was born. He had enjoyed a strong and increasingly intriguing supporting role in two earlier plays depicting the unhappy reign of King Henry VI and then, finally, was given his own star vehicle. In this new play, when he first limped on he needed no introduction. Perhaps the audience recognized the actor and his costume from the prequels; perhaps the uneven gait and misshapen body left no doubt as to his demonic persona. Throughout his long opening speech he felt no need to remind the spectators of his identity, and indeed, it was only in the 52nd line of the play, uttered by his brother Clarence, that they heard his name for the first time: Richard.
Paul Prescott

2. The Play’s Sources and Cultural Contexts

Abstract
Shakespeare’s use of his sources has been a major theme of much criticism of Richard III and the history plays in general (see Chapter 6, ‘Critical Assessments’). Most of the debate centres on whether Shakespeare endorsed or implicitly critiqued the orthodox and Tudor-biased historical accounts of Richard’s rise and reign on which he based his play. Of the five extracts printed below, the first three are direct sources for the play. They encapsulate the standard framework of historical interpretation within which Shakespeare wrote his play. It should be remembered (a) that it would have been impossible for Shakespeare’s company to pass a play through the Master of the Revels’ inspection that was explicitly critical of Henry Tudor (Richmond), Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, and (b) that all of the sources available to Shakespeare shared a common interpretation of history and character; the playwright would have looked in vain for a historian sympathetic to Richard, or a balanced account of his reign. Text 5 post-dates the composition of the play, but nevertheless reveals much about the social attitudes to deformity and disability held by many in Shakespeare’s audience and, indeed, by Richard’s enemies in the play.
Paul Prescott

3. Commentary

Abstract
There is a moment before most theatrical performances when the audience decides for itself that the event is about to begin. The volume of chatter dissolves to near silence and the separate individuals who have made the trip to the theatre become unified as a body of spectators. For the first time the audience acts collectively. Before every performance of Richard III it is probable that this moment is heavy with expectation: somewhere backstage he is waiting to step forward and deliver himself to our eyes and ears. Over the following pages, I want to offer a detailed commentary on what might happen next. The cleanliness and predictable regularity of printed texts — all margins aligned, all font the same size, long speeches with the appearance of forbidding monuments — all this can, if we are not careful, lull us into reading Shakespeare’s plays as epic poems, or, more broadly, as Literature. Nor is there anything wrong with this. The artefact belongs to us, its audience, and it is our individual right to enjoy and value it on whatever level we choose. But if (cf. Chapter 6, Critical Assessments) we cannot be sure what Shakespeare intended this piece to mean, we can at least be sure that he meant it to be performed. That is, our enjoyment and valuation of the text is liable to increase if we can either see it in performance, or, while reading, make the effort to imagine the words as spoken in concrete situations by actors who are aware of our presence and are seeking to thrill, excite and move us.
Paul Prescott

4. Key Productions and Performances

Abstract
Had Shakespeare established a literary estate to which performance royalties were due after his death, probably more than any of his plays, Richard III would have most swelled the coffers in the four centuries since 1616. With a handful of other plays (Othello, 1 Henry IV, Macbeth and Hamlet) it has enjoyed a continuous, highly successful stage life from the Restoration to the present day. The title role is a gift that most actors are loath to refuse. The British theatre at least has been dominated for most of its history by actor-managers, towering figures such as David Garrick, John Philip Kemble, William Macready, Charles Kean and Henry Irving, for whom the choice of performing Richard III not only confirmed their place within a theatrical tradition, but also often made sound financial sense. In the twentieth century, the rise of the director did little to dent the frequency with which the play was revived, increasingly in conceptual interpretations or in the context of history play cycles, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘This England’ double tetralogy of 2000, when Richard was seen as the culmination of a historical sequence stretching back to the deposition of Richard II. The range of interpretations and styles of performance has been remarkable. From one Dr Landis who in 1876 hired Tamany Theatre in New York in order to perform Richard alone on stage while all other parts issued from behind opaque screens, to Kathryn Hunter’s gender-bending Gloucester in a distinctly inauthentic all-female production at Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 2003.
Paul Prescott

5. The Play on Screen

Abstract
In the early decades of the twentieth century, at the moment when the stage had widely restored Shakespeare’s texts and when actors such as Sir Henry Irving were finally perceived as legitimate enough to be awarded a knighthood, a fresh threat emerged to this newly sanctified mode of representation. Suddenly in the new palladium of pleasure that was the picture house, a paying audience could dispense with the live actor entirely. As one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, it was a small matter of time before Richard III made the leap from stage to screen. This chapter offers brief introductions to each of the six twentieth-century versions of the play most widely available to the viewer.
Paul Prescott

6. Critical Assessments

Abstract
What William Hazlitt observed two hundred years ago remains true today: ‘Richard III may be considered as properly a stage-play: it belongs to the theatre, rather than the closet’ (1916, p. 187). Nevertheless, as was remarked in Chapter 1, Richard III was frequently reprinted in Shakespeare’s own lifetime and was clearly popular with readers. Since then a fair amount of ink has been spilt and brains tossed about in the attempt to understand what the play might mean, what Shakespeare intended when he wrote it, and what we as readers and viewers should understand this phenomenal stage vehicle as signifying in the realms of politics, history, morality and psychology. This chapter offers a selective, chronological account of the history of the play’s criticism. While interpretive concerns have evolved and mutated, there are many enduring dilemmas: How should we respond to the combination of evil and attractiveness in Richard? How, if at all, can his villainy be explained? Should the play be viewed on its own or as part of a four-, eight- or even ten-part cycle of history plays? Equally consistently, the history of interpretation attests to the difficulty of separating critical from stage history, as many, especially pre-twentieth-century critics are responding to both Shakespeare’s text and its latest reincarnation on stage.
Paul Prescott
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